Fish & Chips, Tuscan style
Food certainly isn’t what comes to mind when I think back to the twenty-year-old who left his village near Florence and came to spend nearly a year in London. I was used to the diesel-powered tram; and here I was catapulted onto the Tube, the underground train that makes the great city so easy to get around. I was used to the shabby, paint-peeling number 34 bus that would arrive at Il Girone; suddenly I was on the iconic, red, double-decker buses and living in a multi-ethic condominium in the heart of London’s Indian district, right next to a beautiful park in the heart of the city. But no, it’s not the food that stays in mind.
True, even in those days the city was stuffed with restaurants from every part of the world. Takeways were already an established tradition, but the average quality of the food was pretty low. Even the Italian restaurants had some truly embarrassing menus.
I’m waffling, but you’ve come to expect that of me by now. To be honest, I haven’t quite told the whole truth about that crazy, manic time of my life, because there is one food memory that I have forever imprinted on my mind, and that is fish and chips.
I binged on fish and chips that year. Right from the off, it was a dish that fascinated me, probably because it was so beloved of the British. In every block there was a chippy waiting for you, and the famous newspaper in which it was served could always tell you something about a rich merchant in the city, or the punk community that thrived in the iconic King’s Road. It’s a dish that crosses all boundaries; it still is, even though it’s now up against a huge amount of street food from all over the world.
My recollections of the 1980s are a little blurry, not least because I had only just started to hang out in kitchens and larders, and I didn’t pay much attention to dishes and their ingredients, just to how they tasted. The clearest memory I have is of a place in the Bayswater area, where they presented me with a fish that I now think must have been some sort of Anglo-Saxon carp, doused in vinegar.
My second and third visits, ten years apart, confirmed my love for this place. This was how I discovered Poppie’s, a chain (we’ll overlook that) of chippies that serve a superb product in three sizes: small, medium and larger-than-large: an enormous fillet of cod fried in batter and accompanied by a mountain of chips. Almost impossible to finish, but truly wonderful to behold.
That’s where my own fish and chips really began. Naturally, it follows a fairly similar path to its British ancestor, but like all my dishes it has a Tuscan twist. Hence, fiscencippe. Desalted cod takes the place of fresh cod, because that’s just what we use here in Tuscany: along with anchovies and herring, it’s the fish of the region. Using cod preserved in this way, the batter loosens up a little more and becomes wonderfully crunchy and aromatic, with a squeeze of lemon juice. It comes out less thick than the original. The chips might be paired with pumpkin flowers, artichokes or, if you want something really exciting, porcini mushrooms.
Most things need to be fried in something good, a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil; but with fish and chips that would be just a little bit too far. It wouldn’t be for everyone, for as we know, frying in good quality olive oil brings a very distinct taste, and the fish would cede its role as protagonist. It would be worth trying someday, but not today.
40 years on, that city has remained in my heart, to the extent that I go back whenever I can. And when I go back, well – you can guess the first dish that I go hunting for.
Stefano Frassienti’s “fiscencippe”, photographed on a table in the Locanda Le Tre Rane.
“Life isn’t, and has never been, a 2-0 home victory after a fish-and-chip lunch”
[Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch (Febbre a 90°)]